Blake and Marx

The Humanised Universe of Blake and Marx, by Minna Doskow

Spectre_over_Los_from_William_Blake's_Jeruesalem (1)

Both William Blake and Karl Marx address themselves to the central philosophical problem of their times, the relation of human subjectivity to the external world. Beginning with the new science of Bacon and his followers, and continuing through the philosophers of the Enlightenment, a breach between subject and object developed, between a self-defining subject who knows, wills, and reasons, and a given, objectified nature, including human nature, with which the subject must deal. Nature was seen as “mechanistic, atomistic, homogenizing” and based on contingency as was man, who as part of nature partook of its character. Reacting to this dualistic view, Blake and the other European Romantics of the 1790s sought a way to heal the breach between subject and object and reintegrate man with his world. Building on the Romantic attempt, and Hegel’s critical adaptation of it, Marx, too, a generation after Blake, attempted to heal the rift brought about by the Enlightenment.

Both Blake and Marx propose a humanistic alternative to the mechanistic world view which placed man as a single perceiving subject within a world of dead and mechanically operating objects, cut off from his world and his fellow man in this way, and seen as an object himself by his fellow man, so that his relationships to his world and other men become objectified and reduced to mechanistic operations. They propose a human definition of man and his world, for both believe that the world has no meaning isolated from man, and it is only man’s work upon the world which gives it shape, substance, and meaning.

Blake-London-Plate25-Jerusalem-Trans292 (1)In doing so, both attempt to bridge the gap between subject and object posited by their Enlightenment predecessors by proposing an extension of the subject outward through consciousness and activity thereby creating a humanised universe as well as a fully developed self. For both, the world becomes subject – as is evident in Blake’s metaphor of unfallen man “who contained in his mighty limbs all things in Heaven & Earth” (Jer 1:27) and in Marx’s naming nature man’s “inorganic body” (The Economic and Philosophic Manuscripts of 1844, cited hereafter as EPM).  On the other hand, man becomes simultaneously objectified in all the objects of his world to which he gives shape and definition through the exercise of his mental and physical powers. Blake thus sees man simultaneously at the centre and circumference of his world, and Marx sees him achieving subjective self-realization through his conscious objectification in productive activity. In either case, the resulting unity between subject and object brought about through the conscious activity of man in fully human development displaces the atomistic, dualistic model left by the Enlightenment.

For Blake, the subject actively expands to include the universe. Indeed, since Blake defines the universe itself as part of a human being, nothing can exist without man, and only through a human projection outward does the very universe come into being. Man’s powers of imagination and reason (Los and Urizen) are repeatedly shown as responsible for the creation of the world. Without these powers, nothing would be, only chaos and the indefinite. Man creates the world by knowing, perceiving, and working upon it. He thereby gives it a human definition and makes the objects of the world subjects through his activities: “Where man is not nature is barren” (MHH). Blake’s ideal world, then, is the garden or the city, nature influenced by civilisation, and not the forest primeval, raw natural matter. Furthermore, ideal existence in that world is active labour and never simply idle bliss, which is the condition of Beulah’s rest from imaginative labours rather than Eden’s eternal state itself. Similarly, Eden, even when it appears in its historical guise as Blake’s vision of revolutionary change in the earlier prophetic books, appears in terms of human imaginative action shaping the world.


“Man creates the world by knowing, perceiving, and working upon it.”

As he acts on the world, man also creates his own human identity. He actively defines the world and himself intellectually, sensually, and physically through his mental pursuits and intellectual acts, through his senses and affections, and through his physical labour and crafts. Artistic activity is of course important, and Blake consistently calls on pointers, sculptors, architects, poets, and musicians to shape the world in imaginative form through their activities. However, it is often tempting to stop there and ignore the vital part which he assigns to reason and science as dimensions of human intellect in shaping the world. Bacon, Newton, and Locke, however, join Shakespeare, Milton, and Chaucer in drawing Albion’s visionary chariot in that Edenic realm pictured at the end of Jerusalem, for all “Mental pursuits (Jer IV:77), when they are truly human and not distorted, contribute to the imaginative shaping of the world.


Building the New Jerusalem: the evolution of the senses and intellect


Shaping the universe: Los, the human imagination

All the “labours of Art & Science” (Jer IV:77) build the New Jerusalem, for all are in some way products of human intellect and activity. Indeed, the energetic exercise of human imagination in whatever form it appears develops man’s capacity and ability, and through subjective action helps to achieve and define Blake’s ideal renovated universe as mere passive contemplation, abstraction, or inactivity cannot. Without this imaginative activity the world is not, but only appears to be; it consists of dead objects rather than living forms. In this way, Blake’s epistemology is a complete reversal of Locke’s. For Locke, the human mind is empty, to be filled up by the perception of empirical stimuli which impinge upon consciousness, shape it, and may only be combined or judged, not altered by it. For Blake, the opposite is true. Man’s consciousness is the active shaping agent which determines the human form of all phenomena in the universe. From the world of dead objects, Blake brings us to the humanised world subjectively determined.

Man’s senses shape his world just as much as his intellect does. An infinitely variable and human way of seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, and touching (and this last includes loving) determines the world, changes it from death to life, from discrete, mechanical, dead objects (the Enlightenment view) to unified, subjectively determined, and therefore, living reality. Blake’s theories oppose the empirical and sensationalist theories of Locke, changing the perceptive function of man from passive reception to active determination of stimuli. When Orc comes to renew the world at the end of America, for example, he begins by abolishing Lockean sensuality as a prelude to renewal.  Man’s “five gates,” the Lockean senses which provide mere entrances for outside stimuli, are “consum’d, & their bolts and hinges melted” by Orc’s revolutionary flames which proceed to abolish tyrannical governments also.


Man’s “five gates,” the Lockean senses which provide mere entrances for outside stimuli, are “consum’d, & their bolts and hinges melted” by Orc’s revolutionary flames

The active function of man’s ever-variable and potentially infinite powers of perception is necessary to shape a renewed world. In the same way, the hellish world which the [Rationalising] Angel shows Blake in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell alters to an Edenic vision as Blake regards it, for it adjusts to the eye of the new beholder. Similarly, whether one sees the sun as a shining guinea in the sky or a band of angels depends on the eye of the beholder. In either case, the eye shapes the object, but whether it shapes it imaginatively or not depends on the state of the human eye.

blakejob_color14 (1)What it will be Questiond When the Sun rises do you not see a round Disk of fire somewhat like a Guinea O no no I see an Innumerable company of the Heavenly host crying Holy Holy Holy is the Lord God Almighty I question not my Corporeal or Vegetative Eye any more than I would Question a Window concerning a Sight I look thro it & not with it. [Blake, A Vision of the Last Judgment]

In addition, man’s senses in their Blakean rather than Lockean exercise determine man’s human identity much as they do his humanised universe. For as Blake never tires of telling his readers, man becomes what he beholds; and if he beholds the discrete world of dead material objects which Locke describes, he, too, becomes objectified and deadened, as Reuben, fallen Albion, the historical tyrants and Urizenic characters generally do throughout Blake’s prophetic works. If, on the other hand, he cleanses the doors of his perception, he regains life and becomes a living subject in a humanised or subjective universe as renovated Albion finally does at the end of Jerusalem.


“man becomes what he beholds”: the measurer becomes the measured

Finally, man shapes his universe and himself through his labour. Imaginative activity is not simply intellectual, scientific, artistic, and perceptive, but also physical – as Blake’s images of the cultivated Edenic garden and civilised immortal city imply. Blake’s earliest revolutionary hero, Orleans, envisions a post-revolutionary Edenic world based on human labour. He sees the priest joining the peasant “and putting his hand to the plow” in a social and, therefore, truly human form of labour. The tools of human activity remain in his visionary world, but they free rather than enslave man as in the pre-revolutionary (or contemporary European) society. “And the saw, and the hammer, the chisel, the pencil, the pen, and the instruments/Of heavenly song sound in the wilds once forbidden, to teach the laborious plowman.” Once the restrictions of the old regime’s oppressive tyrannical power are lifted, these human tools can once again, in Blake’s view, civilise the world for man to live in.


Los, the Labourer and Creative Imagination, with his blacksmith’s hammers to forge and reshape reality

Nor does Blake ever abandon this view of human labour creating the imaginatively fulfilling universe. Even Los, the ultimate spirit of imagination, the eternal prophet, is viewed as a labourer, a blacksmith, who accomplishes his task of universal renovation within the metaphor of human labour. Whether we see him giving form to the earth with the tools of his trade, riveting, soldering, or forging, opposing the forces of reaction and dehumanisation in the world of Urizen or the “Spectre”, or creating the arts of the world in his furnaces by building Golgonooza, he is consistently pictured with his hammer, anvil, and bellows, working with the Promethean gift of fire through an approximation of human labour to remake the world in an eternal imaginative human image.

Even in the corrupted or fallen world, human labour provides whatever ameliorating circumstances manage to exist. Science, mathematics, architecture, law, and commerce are among the activities which keep the universe from falling into complete chaos. So, even in a universe which distorts the ideal, human labour serves as an extenuating activity.

Although the distinction between man’s intellect, senses, and labour is convenient for the purposes of discussion and analysis, it Is not one which Blake advocates. For him, the energetic exercise of the human imagination in all its capacities (intellectual, sensual, and physical) is one, no matter what form imagination temporarily appears, and it inevitably brings with it all the other forms in the unified man. He does not consider it important nor often even possible to distinguish between the products of mind and body. Imagination consists of the free exercise of both, and only this exercise make man truly human, constitutes his “Human Form Divine”. Therefore, Blake advocates the active or prolific in all its forms, for all human energies are needed to renovate man and humanise his world.


We are Family: “man sees his fellow men as extensions of his subjectivity and substitutes brotherhood for antagonism or self-interest in his relationships with them”

This same unbounded human development which renews man and the world establishes a bond between man and his fellows. Just as the universe becomes living form for Blake when man shapes it by extending his subjectivity in it, so too does one’s fellow man. No longer seeing the world as dead objects, but as an extension of himself, man sees his fellow men similarly as extensions of his subjectivity and substitutes brotherhood for antagonism or self-interest in his relationships with them. They cannot exist as objects to be manipulated, for the entire world is a single subjective unity proceeding from man’s imaginative activity, and all mankind is one. As one, mankind proceeds in perfect equality, in brotherhood, affirming self and other simultaneously. This is the political and social post-revolutionary vision glimpsed in the prophetic books and brought to fruition at the end of Jerusalem.

For Marx, as for Blake, man’s exercise of his human capacities shapes the worlds he lives in as well as his self. Man is both part of nature and simultaneously the whole of which nature is a part. The two are inexorably linked since “nature is man’s inorganic body” (EPM). Again for Marx as for Blake, nature without man is nonentity: “nature fixed in isolation from man – is nothing for man” (EPM). In the world, however, nature supplies the means of man’s physical survival and also provides the raw material for man’s physical activities in industry and agriculture and for his imaginative activities in art and science. Inarticulate nature is thus given expression through man’s labours.

This human labour, which Adam Smith, for one, characterises as an essentially and innately burdensome activity, Marx, like Blake, views as liberating activity, as “positive, creative activity” through which man achieves “self-realization, objectification of the subject, hence real freedom.” That is, man realises himself through his activity in the world by extending his subjectivity to shape the objects he deals with. Marx is not talking about physical labour only, for he opposes Adam Smith’s idea by specifically citing the example of a composer whose hard work is yet liberating and creative. Marx is, however, describing only truly human labour, that labour which is freed from its oppressive historical circumstances.


transforming nature: “nature supplies the means of man’s physical survival and also provides the raw material for man’s physical activities in industry and agriculture and for his imaginative activities”

Through this kind of activity, man brings himself into existence, defining who he is by the way in which he impresses his physical and mental powers upon the natural world and learns to know himself by seeing what he thinks and what he does. “Productive activity is, therefore, the mediator in the ‘subject-object relationship’ between man and nature. A mediator that enables man to lead a human mode of existence, ensuring that he does not fall back into nature, does not dissolve himself within the ‘object’.”


Los’s hammer alters both the created and creator

In his productive activity man, therefore, defines himself as human by changing nature, bringing it into line with himself rather than being absorbed by it. Just as the slave in Hegel’s “Lordship and Bondage” develops himself by working while the master who does no work remains undifferentiated and undeveloped, so, too, does man, in Marx’s view, develop himself as he acts. Furthermore, by acting on the world and creating distinctively human products, he can view himself in the objects around him, and thereby see the human shape of the world rather than raw nature, and this further develops his consciousness. Man “duplicates himself not only, as in consciousness, intellectually, but also actively, in reality, and therefore he contemplates himself in a world that he has created” (EPM). He here obliterates the distinction between subject and object by objectifying himself in his activities and simultaneously through the consciousness and perception of this objectification, subjectivizing the entire universe, giving it a human form.

The Light of the Morning
Heavens Mountains adorning
In particles bright
The jewels of Light
Distinct shone & clear—
Amazd & in fear
I each particle gazed
Astonishd Amazed
For each was a Man
Human formd. Swift I ran
For they beckond to me
Remote by the Sea
Saying. ‘Each grain of Sand
Every Stone on the Land
Each rock & each hill
Each fountain & rill
Each herb & each tree
Mountain hill Earth & Sea
Cloud Meteor & Star
Are Men Seen Afar.’     (Blake)

263514922299poem_jpgThrough his intellectual and physical labour, man makes the subject object by creating or acting upon the objects of the world, and, at the same time, makes the object subject by turning the world of objects into a function of man and thereby supplying the world with subjective essence. Consequently, the world becomes a confirmation of man’s essential human powers, “all objects become for him the objectification of himself, become objects which confirm and realise his individuality, become his objects: that is, man himself becomes the object” (EPM). Thereby the inner is made outer, the subject made object, and vice versa. By shaping the world and recognizing himself in that shape, man annihilates the opposition between self and other, and instead of the antagonism between antithetical concepts that modern Western thought has accustomed itself to, Marx’s thinking substitutes a mutuality or unity of contraries within diversity.

Indeed, Marx sees man working to shape the world in “each of his human relations to the world – seeing, hearing, smelling, tasting, feeling, thinking, observing, experiencing, wanting, acting, loving …” (EPM) and, conversely, therefore shaping himself as well as the world. The effect of man’s activity on the formation of the human senses which Marx depicts is particularity noteworthy, for it does not fall within the purely economic vision usually associated with him. Nevertheless, he claims that through man’s efforts “the eye has become a human eye, just as its object has become a social, human object – an object made by man for man” (EPM). The senses are humanised in relation to the humanised subject. The eye can see a beautiful statue because human art has shaped both the statue and the eye that can recognise its beauty. 1200px-William_Blake_-_Job_and_His_Family (1)Conversely, the most beautiful music can have no sense for the unmusical ear, for “the meaning of an object for me goes only so far as my senses go” (EPM), and my senses are formed by what they behold. “The forming of the five senses is a labour of the entire history of the world down to the present” (EPM), Marx proclaims, It is also the story which Blake tells in Europe.


Human Society as God

The social dimension of the humanised universe marks the vital culmination of Marx’s vision. Not only does man see himself in the humanised world formed by his labour, but he sees his fellow men duplicated for him as well, and they too see him as well as themselves. Through his activities in the world man establishes a bond with his fellow men and thereby becomes a truly social being. Whether he acts alone or with others, if he engages in human action he inevitably works as part of the ongoing human species and not in unique relationship to simply raw nature. Therefore, “his natural existence become[s] his human existence, and nature become[s] man for him. Thus society is the unity of being of man with nature – the true resurrection of nature – the naturalism of man and the humanism of nature both brought to fulfilment” (EPM). Just as the human becomes the fulfilment of the natural, so the social (civilization) becomes the fulfilment of the human in Marx’s thinking, and all form a single unity.

Yet as both Blake and Marx recognise, the humanised universe and fully human individual which are potentially our destiny are not actually our being in the world. What then has happened to create this disparity? For Blake, the answer lies in man’s loss of imagination, while for Marx it lies in the alienation of his labour under capitalism. Yet these answers are not as different as they may at first appear, for the causes, evidences, and consequence of each are almost identical. Both writers see a distortion of human subjectivity which extends outward to encompass the world and results in distorted practices and a distorted world which are further reflected by the subject.

newtonian-mindFor Blake, the subject-object distinction underlies and exemplifies the lapse of human imagination which destroys the unity of the world and is responsible for man’s unfulfilled, limited, and oppressed condition in it. This arbitrary division by the subject within himself prevents the extension of the subject outward, limits man to only objective perceiving and thinking, cuts him off from everything else in the universe, and proclaims universal reification. Man himself is isolated in the prison of his subjectivity, in an opaque cavern of obdurate bone admitting sensation through minimal sensual entrances, “till he sees all things thro’ narrow chinks of his cavern” (MHH). His perception is restricted to the reception of empirically verifiable sensory stimuli which his intellect may combine, judge, or generalise upon in rational abstraction, scientific thought, or formal logic. Because he refuses to exercise his imaginative powers, he loses them and is left less than human too, cut off from his potential self, from nature, from his fellow man, and from divinity in a limited, shriveled being.


Divided Brain, Divided World

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But nature too is limited by this process. As other opposed to self, the dehumanised universe is left in dead objectivity cut off from its subjective essence, which is man. Man emerges, then, as an isolated independent unit in a world of isolated independent units – the atomised, objectified universe of Bacon, Newton, and Locke. Rather than seeing himself duplicated in nature, or shaping it through his perception, imagination, or action, he sees nature as operating independently of him and his only action consists in responding to it as already given. This is essentially the Lockean view of man as reactor to, manipulator, and abstractor of given, empirically verifiable stimuli, which Blake repeatedly attacks throughout his work as Urizenic perversion of intellect and the atomic, mechanistic Newtonian world, which Blake equally attacks. But for Blake the view is brought about not because of the way things are in the world, the natural given, but because of man’s arbitrary subjective limitation. In Jerusalem, for example, when Albion refuses to recognise his divine imagination, he reduces his intellect to empirical rationalism, “demonstration,” and darkens his world to its postlapsarian state. The denial of imagination also produces Reuben, the merely natural man of limited or earthbound perception who lives in the atomistic universe, “the Wilds of Newton & Locke” (Jer 2:30, 40). His narrowed senses narrow the world, for “If the Perceptive Organs close: their Objects seem to close also” (Jer 2:30, 56).



“Once he takes the fatal step of thinking the object-world independent of him, Albion sinks into a sleep symbolizing the passivity of his mind, and his creation separates and becomes the ‘female will’ or Mother Nature, the remote and inaccessible universe of tantalizing Mystery we now see” (Frye, Fearful Symmetry)

Seeing the primary cause of man’s fallen condition as internal, within man’s consciousness, Blake yet sees the inevitable external consequences of this internal failure; and sees, furthermore, that these external consequences rebound upon man and further limit his being. Thus, man first denies his imaginative potential by withdrawing from unity with the world as Albion does at the beginning of Jerusalem. In doing so, however, he creates a demonised natural world and civil society which, in turn, oppress him and further limit his potential. Nature is left as an inhuman force (as Vala, Enitharmon, the fallen female, or Urizenic creation) which man may know only as his restricted senses allow through weight, measure, and distance, and not as part of himself.

Society becomes the means by which others may be treated as objects, for man is as cut off from his fellow man as he is from nature and for the same reasons. He can only see them as other, too, as cut off from him and as objects for his isolated subjectivity. His relationship to his fellow man is thus a relationship to an other, to an object outside the single perceiving subject. Brotherhood is then impossible, and man manipulates the objects which are his fellow men as he does the objects of his natural world. Both become stuff for him to work upon for his own self-interest. Cut off in his isolated individuality or selfhood, he exists in a state of antagonism with other men and with the world. Blake reveals this state in recurrent images of ongoing warfare, of armed conflict and civil or religious struggles. As Blake retells human history, he unrolls a chronicle of bloodshed from the wars of Babel and Shiner to those upon the Rhine and Danube, showing man in a perpetual state of warfare with his fellow man of which the contemporary revolutions in America and France and the ensuing Napoleonic wars may mark the possible culmination. Thus time after time in Blake’s prophecies, we see human beings at war and archetypal characters struggling in psychical conflict with one another.

This universal antagonism is not limited to literal armed warfare; it also exists as antagonistic relations in religion, politics, and economics. Oothoon sacrificed by restrictive moral codes, or the sons of Albion sacrificed by religion, the political victims imprisoned in the seven towers of the Bastille, or blasted by the plagues of Albion’s angel, the family oppressed by tyranny, poverty, and hunger, by exploitive labour, drudgery, and ignorance, images of famine, plague, poverty, death, imprisonment, tyranny, oppression grimly detailed in the poetry and illustrations are only a few of the ways Blake shows how man torments his fellow man as a result of his imaginative failure. In each area of man’s activity the repression and oppression of one man by another, whether in religious restriction, tyrannical denial, or economic exploitation, all stem from the same underlying cause: human limitation caused by imaginative failure. This failure affects not only man’s consciousness but all his being and all his relationships in the world. Everything outside the subject, including other human beings, becomes an object for him and may, therefore, be manipulated.


Alienated Products, Alienated Gods

“Religion is only the illusory Sun which revolves around man as long as he does not revolve around himself. Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.” (Marx)   

In such a system God, too, is cut off from man in objectivity and is worshipped as an independent, foreign entity. No longer existing within man’s developed subjectivity in the human form divine, He emerges as a shadow from Albion’s intellect, part of man cut off and worshipped as other, and thereby becomes as tyrannical and oppressive as the other objectified forces in the world (Vala, Urizen, Albion’s angel).

Marx, on the other hand, sees the alienation of man’s labour affecting his entire being in the world, his consciousness and imagination as well as his activities, products, nature, fellow human beings, and deity. However, he notes the dialectical relationship of consciousness and practice in activity, for, like Blake, he sees man as a unified whole and not as a duality. Furthermore, he places the centre of alienation as Blake does that of imaginative loss within the human subject, who, if distorted, defines a disrupted universe.

_47082516_blake5-narrow chinks of his cavern (2)

“Losing his essential humanity in alienated activity, man becomes isolated in his animal existence and loses his universal being in the human species.”

Just as that which makes man fully human for Marx is his activity, so that which limits man is equally the distorted nature of this activity under capitalism. Then man’s activity, instead of expressing his humanity and impressing it upon the world, becomes cut off from his essential nature and turns into simply a means to keep him alive. It denies rather than affirms him in the world, and turns him into a “mentally and physically dehumanised being” (EPM). In alienated activity, man does not exercise his humanising power of nature but sinks to his animal existence using activity to satisfy simply physical need. He becomes a commodity selling himself (his labour) for the means of physical subsistence. This alienated activity dehumanises not only man but also nature, which is thereby cut off from man and is changed into dead objectivity.

Man’s product becomes an alien object, “a power independent of the producer” (EPM) over which he has no control, but which, since it is cut off from man, turns into a dead and dehumanised object as does the world it controls. Here “realisation of labour appears as loss of realisation for the workers; objectification as loss of the object and bondage to it; appropriation as estrangement, as alienation” (EPM).  Man’s potential self-realisation in labour turns into its opposite, into the loss of realisation for man, because he is not integrally connected to the object he creates which stands as an independent object outside of and controlling him. His labour does not serve human fulfilment; it serves instead to increase the power of the object and puts man under the control of dead matter, of things. Since the products of his labour are furthermore appropriated by another, man becomes fully alienated in his labour, turned into a thing himself, controlled and treated as a means for another.

Urizen_Plate_9_William_Blake (1)

Consumed and consuming: “In alienated activity, man does not exercise his humanising power of nature but sinks to his animal existence using activity to satisfy simply physical need.”

Alienated from his life activity, man is alienated from his essential self. Because he does not function in human activity in shaping the world, he is cut off from “his spiritual essence, his human being” (EPM), his own body as well as his inorganic body (nature). His human needs for self-realisation are submerged in crude animal needs for physical survival while his human senses are reduced to insensibility because they lack human objects to form them: “None of his senses exist any longer” (EPM). Furthermore, through the increased mechanisation of industry, his activity is limited to “abstract mechanical movement”, and man is still further reduced to an adjunct of the machine, himself mechanised. The worker is changed “into an insensible being lacking all needs, [and] this activity into pure abstraction from all activity” (EPM).

Losing his essential humanity in alienated activity, man becomes isolated in his animal existence and loses his universal being in the human species. “Since mankind’s deepest need is to produce, to create, and alienation makes productive life only a means to satisfy needs, individual man is alienated from mankind: ‘man makes his essence only a means of his existence’ ” (EPM). All is subordinated to his isolated individuality, and he forms no bond of common humanity with his fellows. He is cut off from his fellow men, for “one man is estranged from the other, as each of them is from man’s essential nature …The life of mankind is alienated as a whole; man is not what he should be as a human being, but finds himself treated as a means, a tool. Hence, man is alienated from his fellow man, since he treats him also as a means, a tool” (EPM). Since human essence is removed from the world in the alienation of labour, what is left is universal reification; everything and everyone turns into a dehumanised object for the other.

Isolated in his own individuality, surrounded by a world of objects which may be manipulated, man’s relationship with his fellow man becomes antagonistic. The worker, alienated from activity, falls under the power of the capitalist who appropriates the worker’s activity and controls it as well as his product. Antagonism, therefore, becomes the normal relationship between the worker and the capitalist. For, “if the worker’s activity is a torment to him [and under capitalism it is], to another it must be delight and his life’s joy” (EPM). But antagonism is not limited to the worker-capitalist relationship; it exists everywhere as the normal relationship between men in an alienated world where men exist as objects for each other and not as parts of universal humanity.


Drowning in Materialism

Blake_urizon_lg-Urizen Struggling in the Waters of Materialism (1)

“His human needs for self-realisation are submerged in crude animal needs for physical survival while his human senses are reduced to insensibility because they lack human objects to form them”

Since essential human productive activity is displaced in the reified universe of alienation, money takes up its vacated position of universal mediator between man and the world, and, in a parody of human activity, measures everything by its inhuman form. Exercising control over all human beings and activities, it becomes the “pimp between man’s need and the object” (EPM). Man’s need exists as a real need for him only insofar as he has the money to satisfy it, and those who lack money have their needs abolished. Similarly, all human senses are reduced to the possession of money, and any other sensual expression is a useless distraction from it. Senses like needs become fiscal. The same reduction shapes man’s relationship with his fellow man. In order to increase possession, the one remaining need and sense, man must spare himself “all sharing of general interest, all sympathy, all trust” (EPM). Again, isolated man opposes himself to his fellow man.

Guinea_1610342-geroge111 (1)

George III guinea-sun: money becomes the “pimp between man’s need and the object”

The victim of universal alienation, man under capitalism is “wholly lost to himself” (EPM), cut off from all parts of his existence: from himself as alienated activity bestialises his labour, his perception, and his mind, from nature which becomes an object opposed to him rather than part of his inorganic body, from mankind generally in selfish, isolated individuality, and from his fellow men specifically as he utilises them as objects or is himself utilised.


Urizen’s Net of Religion


Having lost his fully human self, he turns in his intellectual confusion to God, an alien being he himself creates through abstraction. Observing the shattered unity between himself and nature, man reasons upon it and abstracts God from it, reducing himself still further in servile dependence upon an abstract deity.

Despite the universal evidence of man’s distorted condition in the universe, neither Blake nor Marx sees the condition as unalterable or permanent. For both the possibility of transcendence is omnipresent, and for both it consists of a reintegration of man to realise his fully human potential. The distorted condition is a necessary historical stage along the way to human fulfilment. For Blake, Albion’s sleep is a necessary precondition for Albion’s awakening, as Thel had to be born to be saved; for Marx, capitalism is a necessary stage to be transcended along the way to communism, but a stage in advance of feudalism at any rate. For Blake error not only has to exist, but it has to be consolidated, come to a crisis, and be recognised before it can be removed; for Marx the contradiction between labour and capital also had to exist and be recognised in self-consciousness, be sharpened and reach a crisis in order to hasten the resolution of contradiction in transcendence.


The sleep of Jerusalem (human liberty) under the Self-centred Spectre, “the Reasoning Power in Man”

Although both Blake and Marx see political change as absolutely necessary, neither envisions the reintegration of man accomplished through purely political means. After The French Revolution, in which he postulates renewal effected by political change, Blake recognises that renovation requires a complete change in man’s consciousness, activities, and institutions. He explores these in later works and depicts changes in morality, religion, science, art, industry, perception, intellect, in human imagination and all its manifestations, not just its political ones. In America, for example, Blake sees revolutionary promise betrayed when only political change occurs, and at the end of the poem Orc soars off to France promising renewed sensuality and clerical disappearance as well as renovated politics as the sign of the coming of more complete revolution there. And in Europe, renewed sensuality and intellect assume the primary roles in revolutionary apocalyptic action. Milton repudiates his puritanical morality and artistic duplicity to renew himself and revive poetic inspiration. Finally, for Albion in The Four Zoas and Jerusalem, political change becomes simply one external change among many resulting from the abolition of his selfhood and his subsequent fully human reintegration in a humanised universe.

In his later works, Blake calls for a change in the nature of man, not just a change in the political status of man, such as resulted from the American and French Revolution. He sees, as his own poetical task,

To open the Eternal Worlds, to open the immortal Eyes
Of Man inwards into the Worlds of Thought: into Eternity
Ever expanding in there Bosom of God. the Human Imagination (Jer 1:5, 181-20)

The inner imaginative development of man is here equated with God and renews both senses (eyes) and intellect (thought). As both Milton and Albion proceed along their journeys (in Milton and Jerusalem, respectively), they each accomplish this task of inner development; Milton by repudiating his old dualism and puritanical allegiance and embracing his emanation, thereby imaginatively renewing his own consciousness as well as Blake’s, and Albion similarly by giving himself for another and also achieving reintegration thereby.


“Jesus holding the unconscious Albion”

However, this internal renewal and abolition of selfhood is not simply personal. It cannot be since it reintegrates man with the world. Milton becomes an inspiration to Blake and a saviour to mankind, and Albion in renovating himself demonstrates the renewal of everyman. But this internal development is not simply a turning away from the world. Blake hardly encourages religious quietism, stoicism, or any system that requires a withdrawal from the outside world and cultivates isolated subjectivity. Rather his vision is energetic; imaginative vision includes imaginative action, and the self and the world are simultaneously renewed, for the two are really one after all. In The Four Zoas, for example, as “flames of mental fire” (FZ IX: 118, 18), of “intellect/And Reason” (FZ IX: 119, 19-20) surround the earth, “The thrones of Kings are shaken” and “The poor smite their oppressors” (FZ IX: 117, 18, 19). Similarly, when Albion finally awakens at the end of Jerusalem, not only does he converse with “Visionary forms …creating exemplars of Memory and of Intellect” (Jer IV: 98, 28, 30), but he also abolishes war, sin, oppressive kingship, taxation, and poverty. Indeed, the entire world turns human in his extended subjectivity, which takes in the human forms of “Tree Metal Earth & Stone” (Jer IV: 99,1). No inhuman forms can possibly remain after his sacrifice of isolated self, that is, of the selfhood. This frees the true self, imagination, for action, and as imagination acts freely it inevitably remakes the world. Blake, in turning to the full renovation of man, never abandons the idea of political change; he merely sees it in its proper perspective as a part related to the whole.


Conclusion: Awakening


Annihilation of Selfhood, i.e. of “God”

For Marx, too, political change, although necessary, is insufficient in bringing about the renewed condition of man. While the first stage of communism is “still political in nature” (EPM), later stages transcend the political in forming the “reintegration or return of man to himself, the transcendence of human self-estrangement” (EPM). Mere political change is by definite incomplete. “Politics in this sense must be conceived as an activity whose ultimate end is its own annulment by means of fulfilling its determinate function as a necessary stage in the complete process of positive transcendence.” Taken by itself, political change postulates “‘Society’ again as an abstraction vis-à-vis the individual” (EPM), but real transcendence sees no abstractions, only each man as simultaneously social, and sees the end of all estrangement, not just in politics but in “religion, family, state, law, morality, science, art” (EPM). This final stage is Marxian communism, which is not simply the negation of private property but is a positive act of human development itself, the transcendence or raising to a higher positive state what began as the negation of an alien state. For Marx, “the transcendence of private property is therefore the complete emancipation of all human senses and qualities,  … precisely because these senses and attributes have become, subjectively and objectively, human” (EPM).  They finally serve to mediate between man and nature, to see man as the “being of nature” and nature as “the being of man” (EPM), to humanise the world and simultaneously to reflect objectivity as subjectivity and vice versa. Thus Marx’s vision of reintegration is as complete as Blake’s and also includes all human consciousness, activities, and institutions. The positive transcendence of private property that Marx envisions is simultaneously the transcendence of the entire process of man’s self-estrangement, “the complete return of man to himself” (EPM), and “the real appropriation of the human essence by and for man” (EPM) instead of by and for capital. In this process all man’s powers are returned to him from their alienated forms and are used to shape the humanised world. His action becomes human action, his needs human needs, and his consciousness human consciousness. He is returned to himself in all the processes of his being and his knowing, in a unity of idealism and materialism in true humanism, which Marx defines as communism.


The spectre is an aspect of the sleeping or unconscious soul


Blake’s earnest hope is that the soul will awaken and remove the spectre from its life, as he says in mirror-writing next to the sleeper


Or if we flip the image around

In both writers the breach between subject and object is healed by a subjectivity which extends itself outward, humanises the object that it beholds, and is further shaped by it in a dialectical but not a dualistic relationship. For Blake the basic unity of the world is variously expressed in the image of the universal man who contains the universe in his limbs, in the humanised identity of the phenomenal world, the inner definition of space and time, the vision of all as one when eternal man and his world merge in primal unity, or of the one as many when single natural objects such as a grain of sand or a flower expand to contain a universe. The subject is objectivised as the object is subjectivised, and the dialectical process since initiated continues as:

AN00042332_001_l (1)All Human Forms identified even Tree Metal Earth & Stone. all
Human Forms identified, living, going forth & returning wearied
Into the Planetary lives of Years Months Days & Hours reposing
And then Awaking into his [Albion’s] Bosom in the Life of Immortality. (Jer IV: 99, 1-4).

For Marx the world becomes whole when the subject in the process of self-realisation objectifies himself in the world and then returns the objectified human essence to subjectivity by the universal appropriation of that world through all his mental and physical powers. Again a dialectical relationship obtains as man shapes his world which in turn shapes him, and there is a coming and going from man to the world and back again. Unity and diversity also merge. “A particular individual is just as much the totality – the ideal totality – the subjective existence of thought and experienced society for itself; just as he exists also in the real world as the awareness and the real mind of social existence, and as a totality of human manifestation of life” (EPM). Finally, for Blake and Marx, man by developing his fully human potential simultaneously gives the world its human shape. Subsequently, by seeing himself in the world, he recognises it as human and establishes an identity with it. Thus both heal the breach between subject and object and establish a unity between man and his world based on an extension of subjectivity outward to embrace the no longer simply external world.



Minna Doskow was a Professor of English at Rowan College of New Jersey (1986-2002) and the author of William Blake’s Jerusalem: Structure and Meaning in Poetry and Picture (1982). The excerpt above is an abridged version of her chapter ‘The Humanised Universe of Blake and Marx’ in William Blake and the Moderns (eds. Robert J. Bertholf and Annette S. Levitt).


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